Hogs Hoping For Huge Advantage In Big 'D'

FAYETTEVILLE -- Nolan Richardson had no interest in visiting any of the tourist attractions in Dallas.

Other than grabbing a bite to eat at a local restaurant, the former Arkansas basketball coach had more important things to keep him busy during his short stay in Dallas in March of 1990 and 1994.

The Razorbacks had aspirations of winning a national championship, and Dallas just happened to be the next city they were sent to during their runs in the NCAA Tournament.

"We didn't go there to go out. We didn't go there to go eat. We didn't go to Dallas to do those kinds of things," Richardson said. "We went to Dallas to play basketball, and that's what we emphasized."

Stan Heath, Richardson's successor, has tried to stress the same to his players in the days leading up to an opening-round game against No. 9-seed Bucknell at 11:30 a.m. Friday.

But there is no doubt that playing in Dallas, a city that has been friendly to the Razorbacks over the years, will be an advantage. Thousands of Arkansas fans are expected to make the short drive to watch the Hogs play in American Airlines Center for the second time this season. Arkansas beat Texas Tech 78-65 in a nationally televised game on Dec. 21.

"It's a plus," Richardson said of Arkansas getting sent to Dallas. "Anytime you've been somewhere and supposedly some of the other teams probably have never played in (that arena), it makes a big difference."

Arkansas has been sent to Dallas for the NCAA Tournament on three previous occasions. And aside from a one-point loss to Kansas State in the second round of the 1982 NCAA Tournament, the Razorbacks have had plenty of postseason success there.

Arkansas advanced to the Final Four in 1990 by overpowering North Carolina and pulling out an 88-85 win over Texas in Reunion Arena, also known as "Barnhill South" because Razorback fans had a way of taking it over.

Four years later, and with their fans again cheering them on, the Razorbacks kept their eventual national championship run alive by getting through another Dallas regional. They cruised past Tulsa in the Sweet 16 and beat a Michigan team that had four of the famous "Fab Five" in the Elite Eight.

"I remember a lot of people from Dallas that were just big Arkansas fans and just glad to have us there and pulling for us," said Dwight Stewart, a starting forward on Arkansas' 1994 team. "It was a great feeling because when we were there, it was like we were at home."

But like Richardson, Arkansas' players treated their time in Dallas as if it were a business trip. Other than going to a mall and dining at local restaurants, Stewart didn't go out. And Elmer Martin, a backup forward on that year's team, didn't go anywhere more interesting than a Tony Roma's restaurant to get some barbecue ribs.

"We didn't really have any time for any nightlife," Martin said. "... We had one goal, and that was to win the championship."

Of course, everywhere Arkansas' players went in Dallas, they were greeted by fans. They were cheered when they took the court before games, and the sound of fans "Calling the Hogs" was not uncommon, either.

Martin said this year's Razorbacks should expect the same type of reception when they take the court for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2001.

"When they go into Dallas, they're going to see red and white," said Martin, who still lives in Fayetteville. "It's almost going to be like at home in Bud Walton (Arena). So that will probably help them a little bit."

In fact, the Razorbacks have had as much success in Dallas as they have in Bud Walton Arena. They have won 19 straight games dating back to the days when they competed in the Southwest Conference. Heath wants to make it 20 and then 21 wins in a row after this weekend.

After watching his team win six of its last seven games to end the season, Heath had hoped that Arkansas (22-9) would receive a seed higher than No. 8. But he admits he had few complaints after hearing that the Razorbacks were headed to Dallas and not a regional site like San Diego or Salt Lake City, which would have made it tougher for fans to attend.

"I think the advantage of playing in Dallas outweighs the disadvantage of maybe the seed," Heath said. "Fans being there, history being there, us having experience playing there and having success there, I think, are all things that are a little bit of an edge.

"How much? I don't know, but it's got to be a slight edge in some ways."

The last time Arkansas lost a game in Dallas was in the 1988 Southwest Conference Tournament, and the team is a combined 4-1 in NCAA Tournament games played there.

It remains to be seen if Arkansas can have the same type of success in Dallas as the 1990 and 1994 teams. But one thing that is certain, Richardson says, is that Razorbacks fans will make their presence known in the Longhorn State.

"Arkansas, as a state, is not that far away," Richardson said. "So you can get more fans in there and get you the same atmosphere that say Kentucky has when they play in Atlanta."

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